Underground lake found on Mars, raising possibility of life

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In a big scientific breakthrough, scientists have reportedly found a sizable liquid lake on the southern polar plain of Mars.

What about liquid water, on Mars, right now, giving us some possibility that the Red Planet could harbor life?

Over the past couple of decades, robotic missions have found ample evidence that liquid water existed on Mars billions of years ago.

Almost 4.5 billion years ago, Mars had six and a half times as much water as it does now and a thicker atmosphere.

In the new discovery, between May 2012 and December 2015, Orosei and colleagues used MARSIS to survey a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars.

The "stunning" find, which was announced yesterday, at last confirms a long-standing theory about submerged water on Mars, in what scientists said was a discovery of "extraordinary significance". That will allow scientists to create models of the heat flowing out of the planet, like a cake that's cooling off after it has been baked - and should give insight into whether it's plausible that the temperature could be high enough to keep water in liquid form at that depth.

Though the temperature on Mars may be too cold for pure water, Orosei and fellow researchers from a number of Italian instituitions noted it was possible that the water was mixed with dissolved salts of magnesium, calcium, and sodium to form a brine, researchers said.

Pettinelli cautioned that researchers hesitate to call the signal an underground "lake", but at the same time they are confident there is water in the sediments because they considered and discarded other hypotheses.

The body of water is about 20 kilometres across and, if confirmed, would be the first evidence of permanent water on the Red Planet.

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"There is evidence on Earth of substantial microbial life in the waters below the poles - and even microbes that can survive within ice veins".

This finding makes it more likely that there will be "not just extinct life but extant life", he says.

While its existence provides a tantalising prospect for those interested in the possibility of past or present life on Mars, the lake's characteristics must first be verified by further research.

For the past 12 years MARSIS has mapped the Martian underground using beams of low-frequency radar pulses, which can penetrate up to several kilometers beneath the surface.

Mars might probably not be hospitable to life today, but when the planet was warm several millions of years ago, it might have hosted microbes - a theory scientists are struggling to confirm through various Martian missions that are now looking for evidence of past life.

Early results from Mars Express already found that water-ice exists at the planet's poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust. "Drilling 1.5km beneath the surface of another planet is hard", says Coates.

"It will require flying a robot there which is capable of drilling through 1.5km of ice".

"Whether similar scenarios are occurring on Mars remain to be experimentally established, but this finding of potential liquid water beneath the surface of Mars opens up fascinating areas of space exploration". And in recent years, scientists actually drilled deep beneath the Antarctic ice into one of these, the subglacial Lake Whillans, which had been cut off from the surface for millions of years.

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